Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Barbarians in Spaaaaaace!

Time for a shift in direction here: my work on the Seven Cities of Magic setting was bogging down in a mass of perfectionism and procrastination, and I think I want a break from fantasy at the moment anyway. So I'm going to opt instead for a science fiction approach and run Sine Nomine Publishing's Stars Without Number RPG. Author Kevin Crawford is known through the Old School Renaissance (OSR) community for his mastery of random table creation; in SWN, he marshals those skills to the end of subsector and world generation. I've always been better at justifying or modifying the results of a chart (or a pre-gen setting) than I have been at ab ovo world-building, so I am optimistic that I can be up and running SWN sooner rather than later (or never).

I'll have more to say about SWN in a later post, but I wanted to concentrate for now on the thematic link between sword-and-sorcery fiction and science fiction: the connection that lets me justify talking about an SF RPG on a barbarian-themed blog. (Well, in addition to the fact that I can talk about whatever I want on my blog.)

While rereading David Brin's Startide Rising as part of an SF inspiration binge, I realized that Brin's central metaphor of Uplift is both a knowing critique of imperialism within SF (Earthclan emerges into interstellar space not as masters of all they survey but as primitives confronted by imperial authority) and an entry in SF's ongoing infatuation with the cyclical historiographies of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee. The Old Weird writers so central to twentieth-century pulp fantasy—Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith—were operating at the same time as Doc Smith and the early SF pulp writers—and clearly the fantasists were drinking the same Spenglerian Kool-Aid as the scientifictionists. (Toynbee's 1950s provenance puts him after the original Old Weird moment.)

This is not a stunning, hitherto-unanticipated insight, but it is a useful one for me: the same tropes that inform barbaric fantasy inform imperial SF. Howard's Cimmerians are Brin's Earthlings (human, neo-chimp, and neo-dolphin alike). The SF characters fly their ships through the same ruined, belated landscape as their sword-slinging cousins, and the mandarinates of Brin's Galactic Institutions are perfectly akin to the decadent Hyborian civilizations of Conan's day.

All this is a fancy way of saying that running SWN—a game indebted in equal parts to the S&S-drenched rules sets of early D&D and the imperial SF of Traveller—fits in perfectly with the primary focus of this blog!


  1. I have had nothing but fun playing Stars Without Number. The game is amazing, as are the two supplements he's put out. (His random free Mandate Archive PDFs are pretty neat, too)

    David Brin is an odd gap in my reading history. I've purchased a couple used paperbacks of his from a bookstore, but I haven't found time to read them yet. Maybe I need to shift them closer to the top of my stack.

  2. Startide Rising and The Uplift War are both wonderful books. I can't recommend them enough.